Interview with Richard Clarke 'Capturing Bin Laden Was Not One of Their Big Priorities'

In an interview, former White House counterterrorism chief Richard Clarke discusses Washington's effort, long unsuccessful, to track bin Laden, missteps made by the Clinton and Bush administrations in the search and how the CIA and Air Force resisted deploying drone aircraft in the war on terror.

A US Predator unmanned drone aircraft: The CIA and Air Force "were just avoiding what they thought would be a potentially controversial weapon."

A US Predator unmanned drone aircraft: The CIA and Air Force "were just avoiding what they thought would be a potentially controversial weapon."

SPIEGEL: Why did the hunt for Osama bin Laden take so long?

Clarke: There were four phases in the effort to track down Osama bin Laden. We made the decision that bin Laden should be arrested in 1996. Then, in 1998, President Bill Clinton authorized the CIA to kill him. After 9/11, of course, there was the attempt to capture him when the US invaded Afghanistan. Then there was a period of looking for him after he left Afghanistan. During the 1990s, the CIA didn't want to risk putting its own personnel into Afghanistan to go after bin Laden.

SPIEGEL: But they clearly had the authority to go after him.

Clarke: They were given the authority to capture and kill him, but they didn't really try very hard. It wasn't a priority. In fact, they really didn't want to do it at the working level. They frankly were more concerned about the safety of their personnel.

SPIEGEL: Was it because they didn't have the means with which to go after him?

Clarke: They tracked bin Laden using Afghan sources, and they paid Afghan groups to get him. Those Afghan groups realized, of course, that if they ever succeeded in getting him, they would be at risk -- and their contract would be over, so they never really made serious attempts. The CIA never really developed an operation using its own sources or its own people, and the US military told the president it would be too risky to use the armed forces for the task. Afghanistan is a landlocked country, and you have to get in there from somewhere. For the US military to just fly in and find one man was difficult -- not impossible, but difficult. The US military didn't want to do it because they thought it would fail and their people would get killed. When the invasion occurred in October 2001, the US military leadership planned an invasion of a country rather than the capture of a single man. They went about the invasion of the country very well, but capturing bin Laden wasn't one of their big priorities. It is hard to imagine in retrospect, but President Bush didn't let his White House staff, including myself and others, sit down with the military before the invasion and say, "Let's see your plan, and let's see how, specifically, you're going to get Osama." So they let him slip through their fingers when they really could have captured him then.

SPIEGEL: After that he fled to Pakistan.

Clarke: When he crossed into Pakistan at the end of 2001, US intelligence totally lost track of where he was and never really had a good feed on him for almost nine years.

SPIEGEL: So the last chance they had to capture bin Laden was at Tora Bora?

Clarke: That's right. After that he went cold. He didn't talk on the phone. He didn't use the Internet. He didn't have meetings either, so you couldn't know that Mr. X was going to go to a meeting with bin Laden and then follow him. The US used satellite photography, radio intercepts, drones, agents, spies, every trick they knew -- but they were never able to find a lead until last August.

SPIEGEL: In 1998, after the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania were hit, Clinton finally acted on the threat posed by bin Laden and his al-Qaida terrorist network.

Clarke: He authorized a cruise missile attack on some al-Qaida camps, and he authorized the use of lethal force by CIA to get bin Laden.

SPIEGEL: At the time, Clinton was in political hot water in Washington because of his affair with Monica Lewinsky. You are said to have raised concerns at the time that the strike might lead to criticism that the president wanted to divert attention from his affair. How did the scandal impact the hunt for bin Laden?

Clarke: It didn't affect it at all. We had intelligence that bin Laden was going to be holding a meeting at a particular location at a particular time, and therefore it would have made sense to attack that location at that time with missiles. We took that option to the president and said, "Look, Mr. President, we know this is not a good time for you because of the congressional investigation, and it will look like you're trying to divert attention, so maybe you don't want to do this." He got furious with us and said, That's none of your business. You just get me the national security advisor. Do you think we should do this? We're going to do this, and it doesn't matter what's going on in my political life.

SPIEGEL: In 2000, you realized the potential that Predator drones had in the hunt for bin Laden.

Clarke: The problem we had was that we wanted to kill him but we never knew where he was until after he had left that place, so we would always know where he had been yesterday. What we needed was the ability to see him, know where he was and attack him at that exact same time. So we needed a reconnaissance and strike capability in one. The only thing that did that and could stay up for a long time was an unmanned plane. Therefore, I proposed doing that, but the CIA opposed it. Eventually, we overruled the CIA and we ordered them to put the drone up in the air in October 2000. But no one had a missile on it in those days. That was not planned for another three years. So we forced them to do it faster, and we had a missile-armed Predator available by May 2001. But neither the CIA nor the Pentagon wanted to use it in Afghanistan.

SPIEGEL: Why not?

Clarke: The CIA said it wasn't their job to fly airplanes with missiles on them. That was the Air Force's job. The Air Force said it wasn't their job to fly their aircraft without pilots in them. I think both were just avoiding what they thought would be a potentially controversial weapon and a weapon that they thought would get them into political trouble.

SPIEGEL: Do you think that the death of Osama bin Laden is going to lead to massive retaliation attempts by terror groups like al-Qaida?

Clarke: According to the US government right now, there is no intelligence that indicates any retaliation is imminent -- but retaliation can come in different sizes. Individuals, single people who are frustrated, so-called "lone wolves," can strike. If they are going to do that, you would think they would do it relatively soon. More complex plans take a long time to put together. The question is this: If they have the capability of putting together a complex plan, then what are they waiting for? If they can do it after he has been killed, then why didn't they do it before?

SPIEGEL: How important was bin Laden to the Islamist terror movement?

Clarke: He was a symbol both of his own cause and of the Americans' inability to get him. But I do not have the impression that he was managing an organization.

SPIEGEL: Who do you anticipate will replace bin Laden?

Clarke: That presumes someone will take his place, and they may not. Ayman al-Zawahiri is his No. 2 and the obvious choice -- I suppose he could move up. He is Egyptian and a kind of academic in some ways, but a lot of people in the movement apparently don't like him. The other one is Anwar al-Awlaki with al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). A Yemeni, he's younger, more dynamic, more like an imam -- and more from the bin Laden mould. So he is a possibility.

SPIEGEL: With bin Laden's death, is the war on terror now finished?

Clarke: Of course not. The other franchise groups -- al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), al-Qaida in Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and al Shabab (the Somalia-based militant group) -- are all active. And there are lots of cells that are more or less autonomous. There is a whole ideological movement out there with imams and web pages, so all that continues.

SPIEGEL: Do you expect the public to be less supportive of security measures aimed at preventing terrorism now that bin Laden is dead?

Clarke: Most people understand now that we live in a world that is fragile to terrorists, and it was not just this one guy in his house in Pakistan that was the problem.

Interview conducted by Marc Hujer

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